So long to the sand pit

 

As I write this I sit on a big green cooler in a huge empty room that echoes like an cave. The walls are bare, the scenic paintings of Trinidad have been taken down, carefully bubble wrapped and boxed up for shipping, and last night a friendly family from Ireland came and disassembled our brand new IKEA sofas and took them home with them. One by one all our possessions have been sold and collected, and now all we have left is our bed. Yup, that’s right, we’re moving. To be more precise, we’re not just moving, we are leaving Dubai.

Seems a bit abrupt, considering we only just settled in, but it was a while in the making and, to be honest, a bit of a relief. Sometimes you have to make tough choices to follow a new opportunity, and although we have only been here for a few months, we are moving on to greener pastures (literally). I won’t get into the details, since it wasn’t an easy decision or an easy position to be in. But, as they say, life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, and we just have to trust that it will all work out for the best in our next move.

In my last post I said it takes at least six months to a year to fully settle in, so we have not even reached that point yet, so what can I say about Dubai? When we arrived in July it was the worst time of the year, with 45’C highs every day and 100% humidity and everyone hid inside. Now as we head into November it is finally cooling down, and it is lovely to be outside. We went to the beach a few days ago and watched a whole lot of families playing with their kids, trying to catch crabs, and I thought what a shame we will not be here at the best time of the year, when you can actually do a lot of activities. But overall, I am glad to be leaving, and though the moving process is always a big hassle and lots of stress, Dubai is not a place I’d like to spend the next five years of my life.

Moving is always a big choice, a leap of faith, a calculated risk, and it does not always work out for the best. I went to Turkey for six months and ended up never getting a work visa and then getting kicked out of the country, which was bad. But that led me to a job in Japan, which I loved, and where I met my husband, which was good. He then took me to Hong Kong where I got a lucrative job, and if I hadn’t done so I would never have been able to take a year off for travelling. But then again, if I hadn’t quit my job in Hong Kong, my husband never would have applied for a job in Dubai in the first place. So like I said, every choice you make has pros and cons, opportunities and losses, pains and gains, relief and regret. We will see where the next step takes us, but I can certainly say that deep down I am glad we don’t have to spend five years in the desert.

Here’s to hoping the next move is a good one!

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Testosterone Hell

 

The other day I had A Bad Experience. The weather is cooling down a bit, so I decided it was time to start exploring Dubai on foot, since the last few months, with temperatures hitting 45’C on an almost daily basis, going outside for more than 10 minutes at a time was impossible. I jumped on the Metro and took the newly opened Green Line to the old side of town where the souks (that’s Arabic for markets) are. Dubai has lots of souks, such as a textile souk, a fish souk and a plant souk, to name a few. I was heading for the most famous of them, the Gold Souk.

Getting there was no problem, but once I got outside the station and started walking around I noticed something that made me a bit uneasy.  There were millions of men, and me. Because Arabic women tend to cover up, foreign women are serious eye candy, even if you dress conservatively. And there I was all alone wandering around like a lost lamb amongst a pack of wolves.

I wandered around the streets for a while, trying to find the Gold Souk, and finally arrived. There were lots of tourists walking around, taking advantage of the low prices of gold. And the gold was absolutely stunning. But the men working there were unbearable, following me around, harassing me, not giving me a moment’s peace. I stopped to look at a blouse and the sales guy started peppering me with questions, like whether I am married and where is my husband today, looking me up and down, telling me I am “very good”, whatever the hell that means.  One aggressive salesman selling shawls literally threw a pashmina on my shoulder as I walked by. I threw it back to him and decided to leave the market.

I wandered around outside in the streets where there were lots of clothing shops, but outside was even worse. I could feel all the men staring at me as I walked past. I stopped to admire a blouse hanging up in a shop, and a man in a white robe with a long beard said something menacing in Arabic in my ear, and I didn’t need a Babel Fish to know what he meant.

Men outnumber women big time in Dubai since so many of them have left their home countries, like Egypt, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, to come to the glittering city of Dubai to try to save some money to send back home. Then there are the modern day slaves, the construction workers from Bangladesh, India, who live in labour camps with hundreds of other men, and don’t see or interact with a woman at all and can’t help but stare at any woman that passes by. You can practically smell the desperate testosterone in the air. You can feel it. That day in the streets outside the Gold Souk, it almost made me want to go into a women’s store and buy a black abaya and cover myself from head to toe just so that they would stop &%$#ing looking at me.

Maybe I am just too sensitive, or maybe going there alone was just a bad idea. Maybe I need to toughen up my skin or learn to not study it. In Asia I never felt intimidated by the men because they don’t look at you like they want to rape you on the spot. And back home in Trinidad, yes the men look at you but it is flirtatious, playful, and they at least give some good lyrics (Gyul, yuh nice and thick like condensed milk from de tin). So this experience was definitely a bit of culture shock. No wonder in some Middle Eastern countries women have to leave the house with a male guardian. In a culture like this, to be alone is to be vulnerable.

Talking about culture shock, in the next post I’ll be featuring four other Travelling Trinis who are contributing their thoughts on how long it takes to adjust to a new country and start to feel more comfortable. Stay tuned.

(Oh yeah, and here are some pictures from the souks. The souk itself is actually quite nice and I would go back — just not alone.)

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So, the story with the goats…


There are only three things in Khasab — diving, goats, and smuggling.

A tiny town about a three-hour drive north of Dubai, Khasab is the capital of the beautiful Musandam Peninsula, the most northern tip of our neighbour to the east, Oman. However, it is only accessible by land from the UAE, kind of like how Alaska is separated from the rest of the US by a huge swathe of land known as Canada. Oman, being right across the border, makes it a popular day-trip or short getaway destination for people living in the UAE. We rented a car for three days, and headed off on our first road trip.

Ready to get lost

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Diving is something new in Khasab, but then again almost everything is ‘something new’ in Khasab. Six years ago there were no roads to the town and the only access was by sea or air. It was completely isolated until a beautiful new road was paved connecting the UAE to Khasab. With the road came a small influx of immigrant workers to pick up garbage and do construction, and tourists who drove up the exquisite coast line to enjoy the rugged scenery, the beauty of the towering mountains, the crystal clear beaches, and dhow trips for dolphin watching.

Fort ruins in Bukha town

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Khasab only has three hotels, and only one of them has a liquor license, so you can guess which one we stayed in. The town is extremely quiet, and doesn’t seem to have any kind of night life at all. There are a grand total of four restaurants, and much to our surprise three out of four were Indian (the other being Yemeni). We found that there are a lot of Indian immigrants living in Khasab and the neighboring towns, and according to the restaurant owners they have all come from Kerala (which makes me wonder, how bad are things in Kerala if you have to migrate to tiny Khasab for a better life?)

You don’t see any women out and about in Khasab, as I assume they are all in their homes. Whenever we went out people stared at us, as I suppose foreigners are still an oddity, and white women even more so. What you do see a lot of is goats — and keep this in mind for later, because it will be important.

Hustling downtown Khasab! Yeah!

Sunset over Golden Tulip

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The divemasters at Extra Divers Musandam, Chika-san (Japanese) and Matheus (German), have been living in the tiny town for a little less than a year and told us plan to leave Khasab as soon as the one-year time period is up. As the only two foreigners in Khasab, they have told us that although Khasab has amazing diving and beautiful oceans, there is literally nothing to do. “Three days is good,” said Chika. “After that, you start to go crazy!”

We headed out to the tip of the peninsula for our dives and admired the beautiful scenery on the way. I jokingly asked Mattheus how close we were going to Iranian waters. “I can just see it now on the BBC news… One Japanese, One German, and One Trinidadian kidnapped in Iran!”

Khasab is a mere 40 kilometres from Iran by boat ride, or about an hour’s boat ride, across the Strait of Hormuz. The smuggling trade from Oman into Iran started when Iran closed its borders following the 1979 revolution, and expanded during the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. With US sanctions in place against Iran, the new road connecting Khasab with the open market of UAE cities like Dubai caused the smuggling business to explode in the last few years.

Catch them if you can!

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This is how it works, and really, it is a fascinating story: every day, the Iranians load up boats full of goats. They cross the Strait of Hormuz, and land in Khasab. They off-load the goats, and the trucks take the goats south along the new road into the UAE, to the city of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK). In RAK they sell the goats to local butcher shops, and fill up the trucks with a wide variety of goods — flat screen TVs, shoes, electronics, cigarettes, alcohol, any and every thing that your modern Iranian desires. They drive the trucks back up to Khasab, wrap up all the goods in waterproof packages, fill up the boats, and off they go to Iran, passing both the coast guard and the military base along the way.

We reached our dive site after about 45 minutes and descended. The dives were amazing as the area is pretty much untouched by mass dive tourism. We were the only divers there and had the reefs all to ourselves. The reefs were very alive and very colourful, and seemed to be very healthy. We dove Eagle Bay and the Coral Gardens, where we saw turtles, nudibranches, groupers, clownfish, everything you could imagine. It was beautiful.

On our boat ride back from our dives, zooming across the blue waters of the Strait, the smuggler’s boats started passing us by heading in the opposite direction. Young, wiry, brown skinned boys with bandanas across their noses and sunglasses on their faces. The boats were small but the engines were big, and very fast. They waved as they went past, the boats full from bow to stern with huge packages, piled one on top each other. I could only imagine what they had in each boat. Whiskey? DVD players? Mobile phones? Nike shoes?

The irony is that the US embargo against Iran is only fueling the smuggling trade. If you think this is small potatoes, moving TVs from a tiny middle-of-nowhere Omani town to another tiny middle-of-nowhere Iranian town, don’t be fooled. The trade is worth billions of US dollars a year. And the people of Khasab seem to be doing well, judging by the number of huge mansions going up along the road. The people of Khasab are leaving their fishing villages and stone huts to get rich smuggling, and I have no doubt their new houses have satellite dishes and plasma TVs.

This was my first trip to a Middle Eastern country since arriving in Dubai, and although Khasab definitely has its own rugged beauty, I probably would not go again because the town is really so dead and there is nothing to do after your day of dives. The hotel was lovely but a can — yes a CAN — of beer was almost US $8. It was disappointing not to find any local Omani restaurants to eat some authentic food, and trust me, after three days of eating biryani, you never want to eat Indian food again! Nonetheless, this first road trip in the Middle East was great, and Khasab felt like a real Middle Eastern town in comparison to Dubai where everything is so new and modern and shiny. We are certainly very lucky that Oman is just a border crossing away.

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TRIP LOGISTICS FOR KHASAB

Car Company: We got the best rate from Budget Rent-a-Car

Driving route: Take 311 (Emirates Road) through Dubai and Sharjah, then Route 11 through Ras Al Khaimah

Border crossing: Tibat town, north of Ras Al Khaimah

Documents: Passports & UAE ID. UAE residents pay a AED 35 departure fee, and a very expensive AED 200 visa-on-arrival fee to enter Oman

Driving time: A little over three hours, though we stopped for lunch and picture taking. One tank of gas was fine.

Diving: Extra Divers, highly recommended. Very professional and well managed. Boat was comfy, gear was good. Lunch was crap, just cookies/chips — pack your own if possible

Khasab town: Two popular Indian restaurants in town just off the big roundabout by the big mosque. The mosque is on your right, the restaurants are on the left exits

Bring booze? Not sure of the laws for taking alcohol in to Oman by car. We didn’t bother to risk it.

Dress code? Like I said, women are hidden away in this conservative town so as a foreign woman I would at least wear a shirt with sleeves, and no tight short pants.

Fight for your right (to parrrtay… or vote… or drive… or whatever)

 

As a western woman living in Dubai, there are a lot of rules and laws which are difficult to adjust to, to put it mildly. For example, I have to get written permission from my husband, called a “No Objection Certificate”, to get things like a job, a driver’s license, a liquor license, and birth control. And certain things — birth control, for example — are illegal for single women, since pre-marital sex is also illegal. A doctor at my clinic told me about a story of a foreign girl working here who made the mistake of going into a pharmacy and asking for the morning after pill, and the pharmacist reported her to the authorities. Just the other day my mother forwarded me a link to a news story of a woman and her lover who got deported after the woman’s husband found out she was having an affair (adultery also being illegal). These cases do pop up quite frequently and of course to any westerner they seem absurd.

But, change seems to be coming, slowly but surely. Today the King of Saudi Arabia made the surprising announcement that women would be allowed to both vote and run in municipal elections next year. This is huge because just a few months ago women were fighting just for their right to be able to drive a car (a right they still have not quite gotten yet). The move towards women’s suffrage, and away from women’s ‘sufferage’, is very encouraging.

Recently I have been thinking about laws in other countries, and trying to put things in perspective. We modern women take our right to decide how we live our lives for granted because we’ve been raised with these rights. Of course women can go to school, and vote, and drive, and buy property, and marry whoever we want to, or not get married at all, or get married and leave your husband for a woman, or whatever you want to do. Of course women can get hysterectomies and abortions and divorces and birth control and tie their tubes if they want to (at least in some countries).

But we should not forget how recently these changes took place and how long it took to get these rights, and the fact that many women do not have these rights yet. In the past few decades there have been some tremendous strides in women’s rights, and human rights in general, in many parts of the world. But what is thirty or forty years? Less than a generation. That means some of the things we take for granted today were not even around when our grandmothers were going about their lives. And obviously we still have a long, long way to go.

I dug a little deeper to find some concrete dates on when these changes actually took place, and found some surprising information on how recently some of these progressive laws were passed, and how many very backwards laws are still on our books, Trinidad and Tobago being no exception. Here are some examples that may surprise you:

  • In the US, birth control was illegal in a number of states until 1965.
  • Interracial marriages were illegal in a number of states until 1967.
  • Consensual gay sex was illegal in the 1950s and some states did not decriminalise it until the late 60s.
  • Up until 1973, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness in the US.
  • Women didn’t vote in France until 1945, 1971 in Switzerland, and 1976 in Spain
  • Homosexuality is still illegal in Barbados, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago. In Trinidad gay men can be sentenced to 25 years for consensual sex.
  • The Immigration Act of T&T states: “residence is prohibited, namely to prostitutes, homosexuals or persons living on the earnings of prostitutes or homosexuals, or person reasonably suspected as coming to Trinidad and Tobago for these or any other immoral purposes”

As usual, most of the repressive laws come down to race, gender and sexuality. Why governments are so obsessed with sex, I will never know. Perhaps it is just the easiest way to control 50% of your population.

This is why Saudi Arabia’s decision to give women more political freedom is such a huge thing. Change comes slowly, but surely. Voting is of course a huge step in this process.

In the meantime, as long as I’m in Dubai, it looks like I’m going to have to learn how to grin and bear it and get my husband’s ‘permission’ to do certain things. Either that, or learn how to forge his signature!

Money Matters

Before I came here, I heard and read stories about people getting into financial trouble in Dubai and bailing out, leaving behind everything, including pets, furniture, and cars. They simply pack up a few suitcases, and in the dead of the night head to the airport and leave, for good. Because if you have a bad loan, or go bankrupt in Dubai, they put your arse in jail, no questions asked. When it come to Sharia banking, they don’t joke around.

I know this is a fact and not a desert legend because you see abandoned cars everywhere. Proof of quick and speedy departures. Run for your life, and don’t forget your wife.

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Oh, and does anyone want this BMW? It’s been sitting outside my building for over two months now. Somehow I don’t think the owner is coming back!

If you want to do business in Dubai, you therefore have to be very careful. Of course, you have to be careful in ANY country. But, as an expat, your worst nightmare is getting locked up overseas. It’s one thing getting in trouble in your home country. It’s quite another getting in trouble in someone else’s. I have to assume the people who were in such a bad situation that they abandoned everything they owned made some SERIOUSLY bad financial decisions or investments that went very very sour. I know we are only here for a few years. This is why I’ve decided to live very carefully and frugally while I am here. I am not getting a credit card here, or ever starting up a business here, or buying a property, or doing anything that puts me in any financial risk in a foreign country. In fact, many expats choose to move their salaries every month out of their Dubai bank accounts and into accounts in other countries and jurisdictions.  I would assume this is something Dubai will have to deal with in the future — the loss of talented workers who won’t stay here for more than three years or keep any of their money in Dubai banks. But hey, if you want to play in someone else’s yard, you better respect the rules of the house….

How Not To Dress (in Dubai)


 

I won’t lie to you — I was nervous, nay, reluctant, about moving to the Middle East. It just didn’t sound like a good place for a belligerent West Indian feminist. I had heard all these horror stories and urban legends about ‘poor innocent foreigners’ getting locked up by the morality police for inappropriate behavior. For example, there is a story floating around about some guy who got into a taxi totally smashed out of his mind and the taxi driver took him to the police station. Is the story true? Somehow I doubt it, but people love to repeat it.

One of my main concerns was what it would be like to live here as a foreign woman. But from the first day that I arrived, I realised that a lot of my assumptions about Dubai were in many ways wrong (and boy was that a relief!). In fact, I was shocked out of my mind when I went into the Mall of the Emirates (the one with the ski slope) and saw all these women walking around with their T&A hanging out all over the place for everyone to see. Friends have told me that on the beaches some people wear thongs! That is something people don’t even do in Trinidad. And the bars are full of some of the most gorgeous and exquisitely dressed prostitutes you ever will see in your whole life!

Dubai is surprisingly liberal, and touted as the most liberal Middle Eastern country you could possibly live in. The laws are conservative, but in practice and in your daily life, it is a pretty normal place and an easy place for expats. I know a Trini who just moved to Qatar, and according to her stories Qatar is a whole different kettle of fish. So I am finding that a lot of the scary stereotypes that I had in my mind prior to coming here are proving to just be sensationalism. Yes, the story about the British couple getting jailed for having sex on the beach is real. But, do you think you are allowed to have sex on the beach in any other country and not get arrested? Is it not common sense? But because the incident took place in a Muslim country, and the ‘victims’ were white, it became a big story all over the world. It’s stories like these that make the front page, though in fact they were in the wrong, and would be in the wrong in any country.

But on the topic of dress code, even though a lot of people here seem to do as they like and wear what they would back home, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is considered kosher. When you go into the malls, they DO have signs asking you to please respect the local culture and dress appropriately. The picture I’ve posted above, which was in the mall, just asks you to cover your shoulders and knees. So simply put, no pum-pum shorts and spaghetti strap tops. Note it does not say ‘Women must wear a burka and walk four steps behind their husband or male relative’. I don’t think this basic request to dress respectfully (they even said please!) is such a big deal, to tell you the truth, as it is not that hard to follow. After all, in Paris, you can’t enter any of the big Cathedrals if you are dressed inappropriately. Even some museums in China have dress codes. I figure if I can respect that in other countries, I can respect that in Dubai.

So, how do I dress in Dubai? When I go out, my normal uniform is capris (to the knees) and a short sleeved shirt. T-shirts or baby tees and jeans are also fine. Long-sleeved Indian style blouses seem popular since they are good for dealing with the hot weather. At night time, in the bars and clubs, I have seen women dressed in really sexy short tight dresses, but I don’t have the balls to leave the house like that yet. (And even if I did, I would probably at least throw a pashmina over my shoulders when I left home and then stuff it back into my handbag when I arrived.) In the winter the temperature will drop to as low as 12’C so by then ‘covering up’ will seem like a good idea!

I suppose the question of whether you should ‘cover up’ in Dubai is a somewhat personal choice. I figure do what makes you feel comfortable. I personally don’t feel comfortable wearing revealing clothes and having men gawk at me, but then again I didn’t feel so comfortable doing that in Trinidad. That said, I also think that when you go to someone else’s country, you should try to respect their culture. I suppose I am lucky that I am in Dubai, where ‘covering up’ is an option, and not mandatory.

Taxicab Confessions

 

“Ramadan start tomorrow, ma’am,” the smiling Pakistani taxi driver said to me, as I dropped gratefully into the backseat of his air conditioned taxi. As I slipped on the seatbelt, I thought about how to respond to his comment. Truth be told, I wasn’t quite sure why he was telling me this. Maybe just to inform me so that tomorrow, as an ignorant foreigner, I wouldn’t make the mistake of going out in public with a Subway sandwich in one hand and a bottle of juice in the next and get myself arrested?

“Yes, I heard, tomorrow is Ramadan. Do you fast?” I ask him, trying to be polite and making conversation. It seems to be that with taxi drivers here it is either hit or miss. Some are friendly and talkative, and some are sour like lime and don’t say a word. This one seemed up for the chit-chat.

“Yes yes ma’am,” he replied, glancing at me in the rearview mirror. “I am a Muslim, I fast. I live here six years now. But, sometimes fasting in Dubai no good! First time I come Dubai, it very very hot ma’am. Every day is hot. I work 14 hours every day. I fast, no food, no drink, no water all day. Every time I urine, I see toilet is blood! Blood in urine! It’s very bad!”

I try to control the facial expression that is creeping up on me — the rolling eyes and flaring of the nostrils that reads “Why do all the freaks tell me all their private business?”  Yet it happens all the time, especially in taxis. I feel like every time I get in a cab, the juicy details all come pouring out. From infertile wives to genital warts to mothers dying of cancer, it’s amazing the sob stories from taxi drivers. And I’ve only been here for a month!

My friends tell me that I have a non-threatening face, which invites people — even complete strangers — to pour out their souls to me. As Nathan Lane famously said in the musical The Producers: “They come to me. They all come to me. How do they find me!”  I wonder, do I really I look so sweet and innocent that people immediately feel comfortable to tell me all their secrets?

For example, one man told me quite proudly that in six years he made five babies, and asked me why, having been married for ‘a whole two years’ I had failed to produce any offspring. According to his own story, his first wife was unable to conceive. “We tried and tried and tried, sometimes two times every day we try for make baby! But maybe her whole life she can never make baby. So, I take second wife! First wife and second wife now are good friends.”  Okay buddy, I’ll take your word for it! But the whole peeing blood thing today… well… there are some days I can take the talk, and some days that I really, REALLY don’t want to hear it.

Perhaps another reason why they get all chatty-chatty is because they are very curious about Western Women. If I get into a taxi with my husband, they don’t say a word. But the second I am in a taxi alone, mouth open and question jump out! The friendly and curious interrogation begins! Where are you from? West Indies! Yes of course I know West Indies! Brian Lara! Chanderpaul! But, you are not black, you are not Indian? You don’t look like West Indies, ha ha! So are you married? Do you work here? What do you do? What does your husband do? How long are you married now? How many babies do you have? What, no babies! Why don’t you have any babies? Maybe next time I see you, you have babies, eh? Inshallah!

I generally don’t take offense to any of this. All of us are expats of some sort in Dubai, 80% of the population having come from outside of the UAE. And I figure if someone far away from home feels in need of a little friendly banter, I don’t mind participating. I know how hard it is to be alone somewhere new — there were more than a few drunken nights in Tokyo when I tried chatting with a taxi driver or two, in really poor Japanese, and they happily obliged. Perhaps my time has come to do the same. Who knows… maybe one day I will figure out if this ‘friendly face’ is a blessing or a curse!


Home Sweet Home

A lot have friends have asked me to “put up some pictures of your apartment nuh!” So today I give you all the grand tour.

I really like our apartment; it’s big and clean and quiet, we have a big balcony which, when it cools down, will be a great BBQ location, and we don’t have to see any neighbours since we are facing out over an empty lot. The view of desert and construction may leave a bit to be desired, but I consider the apartment my little comfy oasis. I’ll just ignore all the sand and construction going on outside and instead imagine it is the green lush hills of Maraval.

So first, the living room:

So glad to have the art up!

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We got almost everything second hand from a wonderful website called Dubizzle where people sell second hand stuff. Imagine all that beautiful teak furniture second hand, and for a very cheap price. Seems like a lot of expats come and go quite quickly and end up selling everything they bought when they first arrived. The couch, however, is brand new from Ikea. Second hand couches suck and are usually disgustingly filthy with stuff like six month old potato chips stuck under the sofas, so a new one was definitely in order.

I also thought I should mention that the size of the living room here in Dubai is the size of my entire apartment in Tokyo. No joke!

Keep all body parts clean

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Something weird about the flat is that it has not one, not two, not three, but FOUR toilets. Four! And each has a bidet for washing up. So four people could wash their butts simultaneously, if ever the occasion should arise. And who knows, maybe it might.

My dishwasher, hard at work

Ah, the kitchen. The most important room of any home. And how magnificent to have everything a cook could ever want, especially after a year of being homeless. A nice big oven for baking lasagnas. A rice maker, for making sticky Japanese rice for sushi. A blender, a coffee machine. A toaster. Ahhhh. Domestic kitchen bliss. The kitchen is a huge thing for me (and for my husband) since this is the biggest kitchen we’ve ever had. In the past, the kitchens have been tiny, and in Hong Kong an appliance like an oven is hard to find. I love this kitchen. So many cupboards! So much room! Wonderful.

But, there is something weird about the kitchen. The fridge locks! In fact, all fridges lock here. I got the fridge in a huge department store and was perplexed to see that they all come with locks and keys. Why would people lock up their fridges? Is it because of fridge sharing in offices? People stealing food from communal fridges? Then who gets to keep the key? Weird.

I’m going to lock the fridge to keep the beer safe from invaders.

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Other weird stuff about the building (other than the millions of bidets) — we have a garbage chute!

Bombs away…..

You just pull down the handle, and drop your bag of trash down the middle. You can hear it going clonking and banging all the way down. Once I heard a bag being dropped from a few floors above me go whooshing by — good thing I did not open the door. Oh, and glass is strictly not allowed. I can’t imagine what a disgusting mess it must be down at the bottom of the chute with all these exploding bags of garbage. Yech.

We are very lucky also that this building has two gyms, and two pools, just upstairs on the rooftops. During the day lots of people lie down and bake in the sun, but I don’t know how they do it. I ain’t burning up my skin in this heat… I go up there around 5 pm when the sun is starting to lay low and the wind is cooling down. Best time of the day.

Sunset swim

So, that pretty much concludes the tour of the new apartment. Not too shabby in my opinion. In fact it is the best place I have lived in the past five years!

(And okay, fine… if you REALLY want to see what a desert view looks like, I won’t deny you.)

Sand, sand and more sand…

Before the glitz and the gleam….

At first glance, it is hard to see beyond the high-rise, opulent, glamourous side of Dubai, outside of the malls and the incredible towers and the golf courses and air conditioned bus stops. But today I found a real taste of the historical Bedouin lifestyle that existed before the UAE hit black gold and transformed itself into the modern city it is today.

The Dubai Museum was a great outing and a nice eye opener about how life used to be here. The Museum itself is housed inside the walls of the Al Fahidi Fort which used to defend the town back in the days. The Fort is the oldest surviving building in all of Dubai, built in 1787. I guess this is definitely proof of the nomadic way of life that previously existed, if the oldest building in town is just over 200 years old.

Entrace to the museum

Sign getting a facelift

Inside you enter into a big courtyard showcasing old fashioned homes, kitchens, wind towers (old school air conditioners) and other artifacts. The courtyard was great, but it was so incredibly hot today, I don’t exaggerate when I say that ALL of the visitors were rushing to get into the indoor galleries and exhibitions and get out of the blazing sun. I saw a bird panting. Seriously. Did you know that birds could pant?

Quick! Run for the AC before we all melt!

One of the traditional homes

Carpet weaving

96 degrees in the shaaaade…….

 ..

Once you leave the courtyard, you enter into a very modern and I have to say nicely laid out indoors museum which covers all kinds of topics, including archaeological finds, traditional costumes (including one amazing skirt adorned with goat hooves which makes an incredible sound dancing), pearl diving, jewelery design, falconry, weaponry, and spices. And although Dubai itself might not have many old buildings, there are artifacts dating back more than 2000 years. What was also impressive was a video showing the development of Dubai over the last 50 years from a humble fishing village to a mega city, and the footage is incredible. Really makes you appreciate how much has been accomplished in an incredibly short space of time.

This is for sure a good little trip for visitors who come in the heat of the summer and want to do something interesting during the day time beside eating and drinking and shopping inside the malls. Really the heat is a killer, and is not conducive to walking around for hours every day for sightseeing, so a museum is a really good bet. It was also really nice standing in the courtyard when the Call to Prayer began, and rang out all the different voices from the different mosques in the nearby areas.

FYI — I got there by public transportation, getting off at Khalid Bin Al Waleed Metro Station and then taking a taxi, which was just a few minutes away and about 10 dirhams (US $3). The entrance fee to the museum is a measly 3 dirhams!!! This is definitely one attraction I would recommend.

Arab Dhow

Japanese products in Dubai

In Dubai there are lots of Japanese restaurants everywhere, ranging from fancy shwancy places like Nobu to really cheap (and in my opinion, disgusting) chains like Yo!Sushi. All the big supermarkets have sushi sections too, for hungry people who need a quick bite of nigiri. With sushi such a popular food, I thought it might be easy to find stuff to make at home. But unfortunately, finding authentic Japanese products and ingredients proved to be a bit of a challenge.

I went out on a hunt recently to try to find some essentials, and had varying degrees of luck. There isn’t too much info online about where to buy stuff, or about what you can actually find, so today, for the benefit of any other Dubies (that’s my word for Dubai residents) who may be looking desperately for proper Japanese ingredients, I am posting a list of goodies that I recently found, where I bought them, as well as how I got there on public transport..

Good old Daiso... all the cute but useless things a person could possibly want to waste their money on

1. Daiso, Oasis Centre

I figured that if there was any place that I could find mentsuyu (めんつゆ)and other delightful Japanese ingredients, it would be Daiso, the all knowing and all powerful Japanese dollar store stocking everything from traditional Japanese plates and bowls to tiny wooden clothes pins with cloth butterflies on them. There are a few of them in Dubai, but I went to the one closest to me. It is halfway between Noor Islamic Bank station and Business Bay station, but it’s too far to walk from either, so get out at Noor Islamic Bank and take a taxi.

Although it was a huge store with lots of wonderful items, unfortunately they only had one single solitary row of food products, primarily soba(そば)and different types of Japanese tea, like mugicha(麦茶) and houjicha(ほうじ茶). A bit disappointing and the only thing I ended up getting was the tea. The sales clerks said that the only place to really buy food products was at the other Daiso, in Lamcy Plaza. So don’t bother to go to the Oasis Centre to try to find Japanese food products as it is quite limited.

You could, however, go there to buy table booties. Ahh, so cute.

..2. Safestway – Sheik Zayed Road  (map here)

This was bound to be a bit hit or miss, because this is actually a Korean, not a Japanese, supermarket, but hey, it was worth a try. Anyone who has taken the metro has seen this building because it has two HUGE red lobsters on it, so you can’t miss it. Not far from Business Bay Station, I got out from the metro and walked just a few minutes to get there. Safestway is actually the big supermarket downstairs, so you have to go up the escalator to the second floor to the little Korean supermarket. Unfortunately this shop was pretty loyal to the Korean customers — only one or two Japanese items.  I did get some Korean pancake mix to be used for okonomiyaki (おこのみやき), and was pleasantly surprised to find real Japanese katsuobushi (かつおぶし), or dried bonito flakes.

–>  UPDATE: As of October 2010 when I left Dubai, Safestway had closed down. Sorry!

3. Carrefour, Mall of the Emirates (no map necessary!)

I finally found redemption at the least expected place — the massive French supermarket chain in Mall of the Emirates (the one with the ski slope). I searched and searched and searched and finally found one little aisle, aptly titled ‘Exotic Products’ with mostly Japanese food. Bingo!! Here are all the things I stocked up on. I love Arabic and Indian food — which are the two big cuisines here — but boy am I glad I can find some authentic Japanese stuff here!

Yakisoba (stir fried noodles)

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Soba made with green tea

Panko! For deep frying pork cutlets

Real ra-yu, spicy chili oil

High in the sky

It is no secret that in Dubai there is a real strong ambition to make everything the biggest, the tallest, the brightest and the best. And why not? If you’re going to build a city out of nothing, and you have all the oil money in the world, why not aim for the stars?

Modern day pyramids?

This is why it is very fitting that the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, is next to the Dubai Mall, the biggest mall in the world, and overlooking the Dubai Fountain, the tallest and most expensive fountain in the world. Yup, lots of superlatives around here…

Right in front of this massive, modern, glittering tower is a very nice traditional Arab-style souk-type of thing — souk being ‘market’ in Arabic. I thought it was quite a nice juxtaposition, actually.

We were too early for the fountain show but apparently this 30-acre lake contains a fountain that shoots out choreographed water jets as high as a five-storey building, in time with various songs.

The irony should also be noted that the biggest and highest and most expensive fountain in the world is in the DESERT!

 Bridge over the Burj Khalifa fountain area

Ultimate tease


Looks like beer…. possibly tastes like beer… but is it beer? NO!

One of the things that Westerners have to adjust to when moving to an Arab nation are the rules regarding alcohol. As Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol, you cannot buy booze in the general supermarkets or convenience stores. However, they do have a massive fake beer section in almost every supermarket. Looks like beer… and in fact the bright blue can on the middle shelf is made by Efes, a Turkish brewery that makes delicious <and very real> beer. I haven’t tried one of these yet, but maybe I should? Who knows, maybe it tastes good.. and of course with no risk of hangover?

That said, Dubai is actually not a dry state. There are liquor stores all over the place selling everything a liquor cabinet needs, but the only catch is you need to have a liquor license to buy it. There is a booze shop called African+Eastern a five minute walk from our home, but right now our liquor license application is being processed and will take up to three weeks! We are going to have to start rationing the bottles we bought in duty-free…

So, where do people go to drink? Well, like I said, there are lots of normal bars all over the place which are absolutely jumping on a Thursday and Friday night. In fact, in a nice twist of irony, because booze is so expensive in bars due to import tax, most bars have Ladies Nights where you walk in the door and get three or four free drinks, I suppose under the general belief that guys go wherever girls are. Score for me! And you don’t need a liquor license for that either. One of these days I will have to try doing a whole week of free drinking, a different bar every day of the week.

(Yes, I have too much time on my hands… perhaps I should try to get a job soon… hmm…)

Dubai’s new metro

To me, public transport represents freedom. In Trinidad I sadly never took any kind of public transport because, well, there simply weren’t many options, the majority of taxis are unlicensed, and everyone owned a car. This is why I truly enjoyed the freedom of life in Tokyo and Hong Kong, where the trains can get you everywhere. You never need to worry about traffic accidents, about filling up the gas, finding a parking space, or about getting lost on highways. Public transport is the way to go.

Metro entrance

The Dubai Metro system is, in a word, amazing. Spanking new, it opened barely two years ago so still looks all clean and shiny and fresh. It runs parallel to the beach and connects the city from east to west. The stations even have toilets! Really nice, clean and functioning toilets that look like a hotel lobby. I like this because the Hong Kong train stations never had toilets, which always perplexed me because what are you supposed to do in times of need? But, it looks like in Dubai they have really done a fantastic job of building a state-of-the-line transit system and I am very glad to have it.

There are two things that I find really interesting about the metro:

Gold Class — On every train, there is one cabin called Gold Class, a nicer, fancier, roomier cabin with bigger seats. It costs more to sit in this compartment and you need to have the right card or else they boot you out. I hardly ever see a lot of people in the Gold cabin and I suppose it appeals to those who can’t bear the thought of sharing their space with all the proletariat from a million other countries. Another friend told me it is very useful during rush hour where the train is jam packed.

Sorry, no champagne in this Gold car…

Women and Children — My favourite, a women-only car in which men are strictly not allowed. Primarily designed for Muslim women, but used by women of all backgrounds. This testosterone-free haven is right next to the Gold cabin, so every time the train stops and people get on and off, the cabin attendant pokes her head through the door to do what I call ‘Penis Patrol’ — a quick check to make sure no men have tried to stand in the Ladies car.

See, in Dubai you tend to get people (guys) looking at you a lot in curiosity. The local Emirati women wear Islamic dress when they go out in public, so foreign women tend to stand out a lot because I suppose in comparison we show off a lot of skin. Couple this with the fact that you have a lot of workers who come from neighboring nations in the Middle East and India who perhaps have never seen so many women in Western dress, so they can’t help but look. I don’t take offense to it, but if I can I’ll go in the Ladies car, especially if I am travelling alone. To me it feels like a little oasis, a girls’ club, a protective zone where you finally you have the right to say ‘get the hell out of here!’ to a man. Once in a while a guy gets on by accident and then looks around and realises that one of these things is not like the other, and quickly makes his exit. Or, someone tells him he can’t be here.

There is actually no barrier between the other car and the Ladies car and they are directly connected, so what is pretty funny about the whole thing is that sometimes guys try to hang out in the little space between the two cars where they can take a curious peek at the ladies inside. The women usually give them dirty looks and they go away, or the cabin attendant goes and tells them to piss off. I don’t really get why the guys want to look into the ladies car… after all, when we get out of the car and into the station we are all dressed the same way as we were inside the car, so why not just look at the women once they get out? Who knows. Maybe the temptation is just too much!

Women and children only

By the way, if this all sounds weird to you, before you start thinking this is just a Dubai thing or a Muslim thing, don’t forget that in Tokyo there are also Ladies Only cars, sometimes as many as three or four per train, because of the high number of groping incidents that take place during rush hour when millions of people pack into the trains tightly together. In fact you are probably more likely to get groped in Tokyo than in Dubai!

Desert icons

Truth be told, I have not been a very good tourist since arriving in Dubai. But let’s be honest – only mad people and labourers actually walk anywhere in this place, or go sightseeing in this heat. It’s 35’C by 10 am, and much hotter by mid-afternoon, so people hide inside. Since we currently do not have a car, the only sane way to get around is by taxi and metro, so walking around for hours and gazing at the various attractions is out of the question.

There is, however, one famous building that I seem to pass every single day, and I’m always amazed by how pretty it is — the Burj Al Arab. I snapped this picture of the icon of the Emirates while zooming along in the lovely Dubai Metro. It got me thinking that all world class cities have defining buildings — in Hong Kong it’s the Bank of China, in Tokyo it’s the ‘Golden Turd’, in New York it’s the Empire State Building. But what’s nice about the Burj Al Arab is that it rises out of nothing — no mountains, no surrounding skyscrapers vying for attention. It just stands there in all its seven-star grandness on the waterfront. And it’s shiny white exterior is a nice contrast from the desert sand.

 

Note the luxury cars abandoned in the desert and covered in dust and sand!

Dubai is bisected by Sheik Zayed Road, a massive sixteen-lane highway (eight lanes in each direction!) that runs through the city, acting as a sturdy transportation backbone. All along the highway, on both sides, insanely creative and weird mega-towers are going up all over the place. Towers that twist and turn and do all kinds of madness. Dubai for sure is an architect’s dream… it’s like they have been given free license to be as creative and outlandish as they like. After all, Dubai is home to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, rising a kilometre into the sky! Quite amazing. But, I have a feeling the Burj Al Arab will always be one that stands out from the rest…

Arrival Day

I am very pleased to report that we have officially survived our first week in our new home, Dubai. After spending five weeks in beautiful Toulouse, drinking beer in the park and watching people practice the tango, arriving in the starkness of the desert is a definite shock to the system. I have to admit, during the first few days, I had a few panicky moments. But, I think I have now gotten over the initial ‘oh my god, where the hell are we, what have we done’ thoughts that usually accompany moving to a new and unfamiliar country.

Flying Business Class with Emirates was really amazing. I have never seen such a posh airline… seats that fully recline, free flowing champagne… a ceiling with little tiny stars that twinkle while you sleep… fantastic! You could actually curl up into the fetal position, hugging a pillow (not that a grown woman like me does that… heh). But if you think that’s comfy, I peeped into first class, and they actually have small personal cabins with doors that can actually close completely, so you are in a cocoon. Wonder if I will get a chance to try out the first class showers some time? Yes, you read right — SHOWERS in first class.

Our new apartment is absolutely massive. Way too big for just a couple. If this were Hong Kong, a Chinese family of about 15 would happily live in here, along with four maids. The complex has two gyms and two rooftop pools too, which is really sweet, since we have both packed on some pounds from the decadent month in France drinking wine and eating cassoulet.

In terms of location, it is quite close to the mega architecture project The Palms, so we are about ten minutes from the beach and very close to the lovely Dubai Marina. From the kitchen, I can also see the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, almost 1 km high. And yes it is true, in the Mall of the Emirates there is a huge ski slope (we can see that too). Too bizarre!

Lucky for me, I have a Trini friend who has been living here for over three years, so I am very fortunate to already have a liming partner. We went into an Irish pub one night and I swore I could have been in Canada (or London… or the States… or wherever!).

It’s important to note that the weekend here is Friday and Saturday, rather than Saturday and Sunday, so Friday brunches with all you can eat and all you can drink are very popular. If I thought French food was decadent, I have to be careful here or it will be very easy to get fat!

Anyways, the next step is to get a car, and my license, and then a job. I have been taking cheap taxis everywhere because it is too hot to walk to the metro station which is about 10-15 minutes away. Plus, there is still a lot of construction, so sometimes the sidewalk stops abruptly and you have to walk through sand, literally.

My friend who lives here told me that when she arrived NONE of this even existed — no metro stations, no big highways, no big malls, no nothing. I thought Hong Kong was a fast paced place, where things got licked down and built up in a matter of days. But Dubai takes it to a whole new level… They literally are building a city up from absolutely nothing. Imagine, if all of this could go up in the space of four years, what ELSE is going to be created within four years?

Coming soon — PICTURES!!!!!!!